A History of Colorado MahlerFest

Robert Olson
MahlerFest fouder Robert Olson

In 1973, Robert Olson received a Fulbright scholarship to study conducting in Vienna with Hans Swarowsky, who had previously mentored Claudio Abbado and Zubin Mehta. While in Vienna, Olson was deeply moved by the funeral march of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony played during the funeral precession of the Austrian president.

On his return to the USA, Olson took a position at the College of Music at the University of Colorado (CU) in Boulder. He became the music director and conductor of the opera program and associate conductor of the orchestras. One day, Olson was reading a Mahler biography while sitting at the shore of Lake Dillon near Breckenridge, Colorado; a favorite spot framed by the magnificent 14,000-foot peaks of the Rockies. He realized that this beautiful landscape was not unlike Mahler’s summertime composing environs, and it was then that he conceived the Colorado MahlerFest.

MahlerFest has grown but has remained true to Maestro Olson’s founding principles.  The festival presents one symphony each year performed by the best musicians from the local area and around the world. In addition to the two orchestral concerts and symposium, there are free chamber concerts, group dinners, open rehearsals, and a hospitality suite. Over the years, there have been films, ballets, and art exhibitions related to Mahler’s music.

The first MahlerFest, featuring Mahler’s First Symphony, occurred on January 16–MahlerFest 117, 1988 and included performances of the Piano Quartet movement and Lieder und Gesänge aus der Jugendzeit. It also featured a lecture on Mahler’s early works by Dr. Steven Bruns who until recently coordinated the MahlerFest symposia.

Patricia and Stanley Ruttenburg joined the MahlerFest board for MahlerFest IV. The following year, Stan was elected President of the Board of Directors, a position he held for fifteen years.  With the exception of Maestro Olson, no other person was more crucial to the success of MahlerFest than Stan, who was designated as President Emeritus in honor of his indispensable leadership over the many years.

The Colorado MahlerFest gained much wider recognition after MahlerFest VI due to an article by Gerald Fox in the American Record Guide.  Two years later, a spectacular performance of Mahler’s Eighth, produced an excellent recording that helped to reinforce MahlerFest’s international reputation.  The Eighth marked the beginning of the long-term association with Daniel and Jennie Dietrich.

MahlerFest X in 1997 featured a performance of Joe Wheeler’s completion of MahlerFest X - 1997 Program BookMahler’s Tenth symphony.  Olson and a small international team of Mahler scholars spent over a year editing and preparing the Wheeler realization. Expert guidance was provided by the foremost authority on Mahler’s manuscripts, the late Edward Reilly, and Dutch expert on the Tenth, Frans Bouwman.  MahlerFest XI (Das Lied von der Erde and the 1893 Hamburg Symphony No. 1) included a multi-day symposium organized by Steven Bruns with over twenty experts on Mahler’s life and music.

cropped-blocks_image_6_1.pngIn 2005, the Colorado MahlerFest received the Mahler Gold Medal from The International Gustav Mahler Society in Vienna.  Robert Olson and Stan Ruttenberg attended the award ceremony.  In celebration, Seattle-based composer John David Lamb composed a new fanfare Our Time has Come, which was performed during MahlerFest XIX.

MahlerFest XX - 2007 Program Book

For MahlerFest XX in 2007, baritone Thomas Hampson and tenor John Garrison joined Maestro Olson in two unforgettable performances of Das Lied von der Erde. While in Boulder, Hampson participated in the symposium and held a well-attended master class with four students from the College of Music at CU Boulder.

MahlerFest XXVI honored the over twenty years of collaboration between mezzo-soprano Julie Simson and the festival.  Simson, now on the faculty at Rice University, has appeared with MahlerFest more often than any other soloist.

MahlerFest XXVIII in May of 2015 was a very special MahlerFest. On Sunday night, when Maestro Olson lowered his baton after an emotional Mahler Ninth it was after his final performance as the artistic director and conductor of the Colorado MahlerFest Orchestra.  After founding the festival and leading it for twenty-eight years of inspired and memorable performances, with artistic and scholarly dedication to the music as written by Gustav Mahler, Maestro Olson retired. MahlerFest XXVIII was a wonderful celebration of, and a tribute to, this astounding achievement.

Following MahlerFest XXVIII, the board of directors announced that Kenneth Woods would be the new artistic director of the Colorado MahlerFest beginning with the 2016 festival.

Many great Mahler scholars and Mahler-world personalities, experts in other disciplines that relate to Mahler’s music and lovers of Mahler’s music have participated in the symposia. Until recently, Steven Bruns was involved in organizing the yearly symposium. Click here for a list of all symposium speakers.

Pre-concert lectures have been an important part of MahlerFest.  These have been given by Jerry Bruck, Dr. Steven Bruns, Gerald Fox, Dr. Kelly Dean Hansen and, from MahlerFest XVI until MahlerFest XXVIII, Dr. Marilyn McCoy.

For over a dozen years, the MahlerFest performances have resulted in excellent recordings of the live concerts produced by Jerry Bruck of Posthorn Recordings (NYC). Jerry has had a long association with Mahler’s music. He met both Alma and Anna Mahler and was among those who persuaded Alma Mahler Werfel to permit public performances of posthumously completed versions of Mahler’s unfinished Tenth. For the past few years, Jerry has been assisted by Eric Wagner and Michael Karas.  The results of this skilled collaboration can be heard on the festival’s CDs, the most recent of which are available for order on this website by clicking here.

The festival has been privileged to present all of Jason Starr’s Mahler-related films, with Jason himself in attendance to discuss his creations:  “What the Universe Tells Me: Unraveling the Mysteries of Mahler’s Third Symphony”, “Of Love, Death and Beyond – Exploring Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony”, “Everywhere and Forever – Mahler’s Song of the Earth” and “For the Love of Mahler – The Inspired Life of Henry-Louis de La Grange”. These films are available from the MahlerFest store by clicking here.

It is the goal of Maestro Kenneth Woods and everyone associated with the Colorado MahlerFest to honor the legacy left to us by Maestro Olson.

Mahler Gold Medal
Maestro Robert Olson and Board President Emeritus Stan Ruttenberg Receiving the IGMS Gold Medal